The world’s leading contemporary art exhibition, Documenta in Kassel, which takes place every five years, has been repeatedly attacked for its socially critical content in the past. Five years ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Hesse, the state where the exhibition takes place, even called an obelisk dedicated to the plight of refugees “distorted art”, thus placing in the crudest way in Nazi history. tradition of opposing “degenerate art”.
But this year, those attacks have escalated into a hate-filled vendetta. Politicians from various parties, as well as German and Israeli government officials, backed by mainstream media, forced Documenta management to cover a huge mural by Indonesian artist group Taring Padi shortly after the exhibition opened of art, and then to take it down in an aggressive “anti-Semitism” campaign.
The Hessian AfD even called for the entire Documenta to be shut down. The Israeli embassy said some of the exhibits were reminiscent of “Goebbels’ propaganda” and had “broken…all red lines”. The executive director of the Central Council of Jews, Daniel Botmann, lashed out at the mural, saying it was “Jew-hatred in its purest form,” and called for the resignation of the director of Documenta, Sabine Schormann (who has, in fact, resigned). The Kassel public prosecutor’s office intervened and said they were examining the large-scale image for criminal content. And finally, on Thursday, at the request of the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the question was even the subject of a debate in the Bundestag (federal parliament).
What is this censorship? This year’s Documenta is curated by Indonesian curatorial collective Ruangrupa, which is considered leftist in its home country and focuses on the art of oppressed peoples and minorities in the South. Over 1,000 artists were invited from Trinidad, Haiti, Mali, Niger, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, among other countries.
Even before Documenta 15 opened, Ruangrupa was attacked as “anti-Semitic,” in part because it also invited Palestinian artists and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. A 2020 Bundestag resolution condemned this anti-Zionist campaign, which many Jewish artists have also embraced, as “anti-Semitic,” amid protests from many cultural figures.
At the end of May, break-in in an exhibition space of the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding. The intruders caused extensive property damage and left behind writings that included the number “187”, a California criminal code reference to murder, i.e. a death threat.
In January, right-wing pro-Zionist groups belonging to the so-called Antideutschen (Anti-Germans), like the “Ruhrbarone”, rose up against the Documenta conservatives. In April, the facade of the Ruruhaus in Kassel – the headquarters of Ruangrupa – was covered with racist stickers apparently by the same forces. It read: “Freedom instead of Islam! No compromise with barbarism! Fight Islam decisively! Another sticker called for “Solidarity with Israel.”
After Documenta opened in mid-June, accusations of alleged anti-Semitism centered on Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s ‘Wimmelbild’ (‘Hidden Object’), which spans more than a hundred square meters and s entitled “People’s Justice”, painted on a cotton fabric banner in the style of Mexican murals. The painting was created in 2002 by more than a dozen members of the artist group, formed in 1998, and has since been shown in several countries, including Australia, to no offence. On closer inspection, however, the over one hundred figures in the painting include two who employ anti-Jewish stereotypes.
For example, in a row of marching soldiers or police, we see a character that is supposed to represent an Israeli soldier or policeman. This one is drawn with a pig’s face, a scarf with a Star of David and a helmet with the inscription “Mossad” – the name of the famous Israeli foreign intelligence service.
The second figure, a man in a suit and tie with shark’s teeth, a cigar in his mouth and suggested temple curls, his hat adorned with an SS rune, fatally resembles Nazi caricatures of Jewish capitalists.
The artist collective Taring Padi has apologized for the fact that these characters obviously offended Germany because of the crimes of the Holocaust. However, he denied the accusation of anti-Semitism. His installation, he said, was established in 2002 as part of a campaign against militarism and violence in Indonesia. The legacy of the bloody 32-year military dictatorship of Haji Mohamed Suharto, which was only overthrown in 1998, continues to have an impact today.
“All the characters depicted on the banner refer to common symbolism in the Indonesian political context, such as corrupt administration, military generals and their soldiers, who are symbolized by pigs, dogs and rats to criticize a capitalist system of exploitation and military violence,” Taring Padi said.
In a July 7 interview with the weekly news Die Zeit, representatives of the collective stressed that their theme was “class, not race”. “The message of anti-militarism and anti-capitalism was very important to us,” they continued, emphasizing that they oppose all forms of racism and discrimination. They referred to the popular uprising that ultimately brought down the Indonesian dictatorship, “a system that cost hundreds of thousands of lives”. The massacres carried out by the Indonesian army killed millions of people, mainly members of the Communist Party and others on the left.
The banner was “also about Western democracies’ support for the rise of the Indonesian military dictatorship under Suharto in the context of the Cold War”, Taring Padi representatives added. The disputed figures purported to indicate “foreign military and intelligence agency support for the Suharto regime…including, among figures from other intelligence agencies, support for Israel”.
Indeed, the extent to which Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency was involved in supporting the brutal Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, alongside American and British intelligence agencies, has been documented. In the Fall 2019 issue of +972 MagazineIsraeli lawyer Eitay Mack has described the ties Israel had forged with the military and anti-communist groups in Indonesia even before the overthrow of the Sukarno parliamentary government in 1965. He cites documents proving that the Mossad was aware of the killings of mass.
“Even though the Mossad knew that Suharto’s military regime had massacred hundreds of thousands of citizens, they forged economic and security ties with Indonesian generals,” says Eitay Mack, who is one of the supporters of a relationship peaceful between Israelis and Palestinians.
The campaign against Documenta under the slogan “combat anti-Semitism” is more than hypocritical.
First, it is grotesque when politicians of all persuasions now drape around them the banner of the “fight against anti-Semitism”. Since the start of the Ukrainian war, these same politicians have worked with far-right pro-fascist forces, such as former Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk, who praises Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera and murderous anti-Semite OUN as heroes, even trivializing the Holocaust. And day after day, the same politicians are beating the drum to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, even though it is proven that the Ukrainian army is full of fascist elements and far-right mercenaries from abroad.
Secondly, freedom of opinion, invoked everywhere as the basic framework of democracy, is nullified when the opposition to dictatorship, exploitation and oppression is directed against the crimes of the regimes with which the German imperialism cooperates, like Israel, but also the so-called democracies of the NATO countries. Germany also maintained close political and economic relations with the Suharto dictatorship. In 1970, less than five years after the bloody massacres, the dictator was received in Germany for an official visit. Helmut Kohl (CDU), who ruled Germany from 1982 to 1998, called Suharto a “dear friend”.
If anti-Jewish stereotypes appear in the works of a group of Indonesian artists, then this can and should be condemned. But this requires, above all, fighting against the confusion that equates the Zionist state with Judaism and the Jews. The crimes of the Holocaust are used by the Israeli capitalist regime to justify its own crimes and oppression. These affect not only the Palestinians, but also its own population.
The Israeli government does not represent the democratic and social rights of the Jewish population, which today faces exploitation, social inequality and police oppression like in any other capitalist country. Zionist ideology is itself a racist and nationalist ideology that serves the interests of a super-rich capitalist elite in Israel and their imperialist allies. It is no coincidence that the Israeli government has excellent relations with far-right forces.
Third, the German government and establishment parties in the Bundestag are trying to introduce political censorship into art by attacking Documenta. The state arrogates to itself the right to decide what art is allowed – or, as the AfD has already put it, what art should be treated as “distorted”. The Documenta debate should therefore be understood as a warning. The current development of the war is accompanied by growing attacks on democratic rights.
Don’t Touch Documenta! This claim must be made by all those who mobilize for the defense of democratic rights. The oppression of the Palestinians, which is also rejected by a large part of the Jewish population of Israel, can only be finally ended in the common struggle of Jewish and Arab workers. The defense of Jewish citizens against renewed discrimination and the crushing of anti-Semitism, like the defense of Palestinian rights, ultimately requires the mobilization of the working class around the world against the bankrupt capitalist system that once threatens more humanity from wars and dictatorships.